The Hebrews are freed at last! Pharaoh has finally caved to God’s sovereignty and released the children of Israel. Bearing the treasures of Egypt, the Israelites parade out of the land of their bondage into a brand new life of freedom with their God. We pick up in Exodus 13, verse 17: “When Pharaoh finally let the people go, God did not lead them along the main road that runs through Philistine territory, even though that was the shortest route to the Promised Land. God said, ‘If the people are faced with a battle, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.'” Interesting. Have you ever felt like God was taking you on a long and unnecessary detour in your life? Well, maybe it’s because He knew something that you didn’t. Even though the Israelites “went up out of Egypt ready for battle,” God knew that they were most definitely not up to the challenge. Instead, he takes them through a detour — a detour that will ultimately cause glory to be brought to His name:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea… Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 14:1-4, NIV)
Now, what about this “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” business? Where does that leave our free will? What does that imply about God’s character of love? I think the key to understanding this issue is to remember that the term for “harden” comes from the Hebrew word chazaq which literally means “to strengthen” — in other words, to fortify a resolve that was already in place to begin with. We can think of it like this: God used circumstances that He knew Pharaoh would react to of his own free will (verse 3) in order to bring judgment upon the evil oppressor. In His divine justice, God simply allowed evil to be lured to its own destruction.
When the Hebrews learn that Pharaoh’s armies are pursuing them, they don’t exactly demonstrate unfaltering faith in God’s power, do they?
As Pharaoh approached, the people of Israel looked up and panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them. They cried out to the Lord, and they said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!‘” (Exodus 14:10-12, NLT)
It’s better to be a slave in Egypt… How sad. But isn’t that exactly what we do sometimes? Don’t we sometimes say to God through our actions, if not our words, “Leave us alone! I would rather be a slave in Egypt than journey in the wilderness with you! I would rather remain in bondage to this world–where my surroundings are at least familiar, where I am comfortable–than walk into the unknown with you!” God have mercy on us…
But I absolutely love Moses’ response to the people: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today… The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:13, NIV). The beautiful promise of Psalm 46:10 comes to my heart: “Be still, and know that I am God.” I like what Pastor David Guzik has to say on this: “Despair will cast you down, keeping you from standing. Fear will tell you to retreat. Impatience will tell you to do something now. Presumption will tell you to jump into the Red Sea before it is parted. Yet as God told Israel He often tells us to simply stand still and hold your peace as He reveals His plan.”
And then, look at God’s response: “And the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward” (Exodus 14:15, NKJV). But, wait a second! This is confusing — on the one hand, we’re told to “stand still,” but then we’re told to “move forward”? Is it possible to actually do both at the same time? Maybe we can learn a deep spiritual truth here. Maybe we can learn to be still in our hearts, having faith in God’s word, while going forward to do what we know to be right and true. Perhaps these directions aren’t so paradoxical after all.
We know the rest of the story, don’t we? We remember how God tells Moses, “Pick up your staff and raise your hand over the sea” (two things that Moses could do), and then how God does what Moses could not do: He parts the waters of the sea, allowing His children to cross on dry land, and then destroys the pursuing Egyptian army. The deliverance of the children of Israel is now complete. God has come through on His promise.
If there’s one takeaway from today’s thoughts, let’s make it this, friends: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today… The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Be still. Rest in His promise. Be at peace in His plan. And yet, don’t be afraid to move forward at His call. Step ahead in faith with what you know to be true and right in your heart. Do what is in your power to do, while having faith that God will perform what is in His power alone to do.